NBA Odds, News & Notes: All to Play For in the Play-In Round

The NBA Play-In round gets started tomorrow with two juicy Western Conference clashes. However, no team is under more pressure than the LeBron James-led Los Angeles Lakers, who have a very tough path if they plan to go deep into the postseason.

Apr 15, 2024 • 17:56 ET • 4 min read
Anthony Davis LeBron James Los Angeles Lakers NBA
Photo By - USA TODAY Sports

Which playoff series are you most excited for? Without knowing the results of the Play-In Tournament, both 3 vs. 6 series draw attention. If previously unknown Cinderellas upsetting blue bloods best illustrate March Madness, then the NBA Playoffs are best illustrated by a young team getting a shot against a proven contender.

The Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA Finals just three years ago. Their powerhouse has not changed, Giannis Antetokounmpo now looking for redemption after last year’s humbling first-round exit. The Indiana Pacers have no such pedigree. They have not been in the playoffs since the Bubble, and they have not advanced out of the first round in a decade.

Similarly, the Phoenix Suns lost those NBA Finals to the Bucks. Devin Booker has lost in the second round each of the last two seasons, not to mention Kevin Durant is not getting any younger. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Timberwolves like to think they are on the front end of contending, even if they look at multiple second-round exits in recent years with great envy, escaping the first round exactly once in franchise history.

Those pairs of 3 vs. 6 series feature a recent power going up against a unique playing style. That should yield enjoyable drama.

No, The Lakers Will Not Tank Tuesday

That does not mean the Los Angeles Lakers will win on Tuesday night. They are effectively a pick’em on the road at the New Orleans Pelicans in the first Play-In game.

But if the Lakers lose, do not indulge in the thought that they did so intentionally. This is a common conspiracy theory this week, one even the most logical of Los Angeles fans has indulged.

Sure, the Lakers would prefer not to face the defending champions in the first round. Nikola Jokic is about to win his third MVP award. Playing at altitude is never fun. It is a logical and understandable preference.

But far outweighing that, Los Angeles does not want to risk a win-or-go-home game on Friday night, particularly not one that could be against the Golden State Warriors.

Take a probability approach, and we will try to use conservative math. The most lopsided series odds at FanDuel, among the series already confirmed, has the Orlando Magic at +156 underdogs to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Assume the Lakers would be steeper underdogs than that against the Denver Nuggets. Let’s call it +175.

In quick probability terms, that would give Los Angeles a 36% chance of winning that series.

Even if the Lakers would be as lofty as 4-point favorites on Friday, that would equal about a 66% chance of winning that game. Then, against the Oklahoma City Thunder, perhaps Los Angeles would be only a +140 series underdog. And, again, that is considered a conservative number. It translates to about a 42% chance of winning that series.

Combine that Friday night chance with the first-round chance, and tanking on Tuesday would set up the Lakers with a 28% chance of advancing to the second round, measurably lower than their odds against the Nuggets.

Tomorrow's NBA best bets

Los Angeles Lakers vs. New Orleans Pelicans

The Lakers have met the Pelicans twice this season with massive stakes. Los Angeles blew out New Orleans in the In-Season Tournament semifinals and then again on Sunday with Play-In Tournament positioning at stake.

By no means is LeBron James unbeatable in games of this magnitude, but the Pelicans simply do not have the firepower to come for the King in a game of this importance.

It is unfortunate for anyone holding onto a “Lakers to miss the Playoffs” ticket — hi, it’s me — and it is unfortunate for anyone hoping for the peak Friday night drama of LeBron vs. Steph for a playoff spot — hi, it’s me again. But it is also reality.

Best bet: Lakers +1.5 (-115 at BetMGM)

Golden State Warriors vs. Sacramento Kings

Chris Paul’s impact this season has been rather minimal. Injury limited him to 58 games and 26 minutes per game. He took only eight field goals per game and not even one free throw each night. But it is not a coincidence that Golden State went 17-9 since Paul returned to the lineup on Feb. 27.

Paul started taking a few more shots, and both his field goal percentage and his 3-pointer percentage ticked upward. His impact still looks tepid on paper, but Paul’s 9.5 points and 6.3 assists during that surge may have foreshadowed a postseason impact.

Jon Metler thinks that time begins Tuesday. Add in the Sacramento Kings’ underappreciated dependence on Malik Monk for scoring, and we are inclined to agree with Jon.

Best bet: Warriors -2.5 (-112 at DraftKings)

NBA Trends: Doubt the Warriors and the Hawks

No 10-seed has escaped the Play-In Tournament. Winning two elimination games on the road is too much of an ask. Six games may not be a significant enough sample size to rely on this forever, but it should be encouraging enough this week.

The day will come when a 10-seed goes on a North Carolina State-esque run and makes a second-round series competitive, the NBA version of that surprising streak being nine wins in 15 postseason games. And some will want to suggest the Warriors are capable of one last run.

They were capable of that. It was in 2022.

In that strong 26-game stretch to close the season, Golden State went 7-7 straight-up against teams that finished the year better than .500. Losing as many games as you win is the exact way to not mount a playoff run.

Raising the ceiling: Giannis’s Calf

Nothing would tilt the Eastern Conference more onto its head than Giannis Antetokounmpo not being strong enough to keep up with the Indiana Pacers these next two weeks. Of all teams to face with a balky calf, this may be the worst possible matchup for Giannis to limp against.

Furthermore, this may be the worst possible matchup for the Milwaukee Bucks after they sacrificed defensive versatility for offensive variance when they traded Jrue Holiday for Damian Lillard.

The Pacers love the idea of offensive variance determining a series. The Milwaukee Bucks effectively played right into that design.

Indiana is a +130 underdog in that series at FanDuel.

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NBA futures update: Beyond Indiana

Think past this round with the Pacers. If Giannis is not healthy enough to keep up, grant the thought for now that Indiana could win this series.

The Pacers won their season series against both New York and Philadelphia, but they never faced the Knicks with OG Anunoby in the lineup.

If wanting to best take advantage of Giannis’s calf injury, a futures bet on New York to win the Eastern Conference (+1,400 at BetRivers) would be the way to do it.

Moneyline underdogs picks

Indiana Pacers vs. Milwaukee Bucks (Sunday, April 21): The Bucks may try to ease Giannis back into the fold, risking Game 1 in hopes of getting him fully healthy for the rest of hte series. Any hesitation whatsoever will create value on Indiana, currently available at +110 at DraftKings.

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